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Ehrlich's Population Bomb 50 years later: Overpopulation vs. Techno-Adaptation

Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb book of 1968 got me thinking then about how to refute his thesis that civilization would collapse in a few decades. What Ehrlich overlooked was the green revolution in agriculture that can feed many more people than one could imagine in the 1960's. The Bomb bombed. However, Ehrlich has another doomsday forecast based on the effects of these four horsemen: toxics in the environment, climate change, overconsumption, and again too many people on the planet. He may not be wrong on these galloping horses.

I was inspired in the early 70's to find solutions to the end of civilization meme of those days and discovered "Sustainability" as a new concept and technology for planning and re-designing various systems--society itself, agriculture, economics, etc. The three key principles of this new term were never to use toxics, always use renewable energy and preserve existing biodiversity. In my view we are failing on all three counts and the term "sustainability" gets tossed around to the point of meaninglessness. It has devolved merely to indicate something that lasts. I don't think it's a serious term these days.

But in the late 1970's, I saw notice of an international contest to examine how we might devise a "sustainable society," and I entered a longish essay about it, and was one of ten winners of what is called a Mitchell Prize. Guess who also won that year?--Paul Ehrlich. I implemented part of my plan by getting a grant to measure the ecological footprint of the City of Oxnard, a first assessment step in seeing what needs fixing. I worked with university colleagues and students to produce measurements of Oxnard's sustainability quotient and then formed the Sustainability Council of Ventura County in order to promote the concept and its application to real situations. That was then.

I still think we might pull out of this apocalyptic nosedive now, but not if we still believe we have to fix all these problems and restore the planet to a cleaner and more natural world. I agree with Ehrlich that that is not happening and things are falling apart pretty rapidly.

What I consider a reasonable response to world calamity is techno-adaptation, that is accepting what we can of our diminished and unnatural state and designing machine and electronic aids to live with it. This will freak out many environmentalists, of which I count myself one, and social improvement incrementalists, but it is actually a model based on evolutionary biology--adapting to changed conditions is a survival process of many a plant and animal, with many falling by the wayside of course.

Our adaptations for social survival will need to incorporate technology, and bio-technology, and cannot depend on our human biology to change by itself, which is a much slower process. What we can preserve and restore we must, that's the environmental agenda I support and work toward, but climate change, species loss, poverty and social collapse in many parts of the world, are with us for the foreseeable future. Besides trying to reverse them, we need to find ways to live or co-exist with them.

What of ourselves? Our current obsessions with cyborgs--or techno-modified human beings--points to our own need to change. We will need personal techno-improvements to survive and we need to admit our failures as leaders, controllers and administrators. The systems being designed now in transportation, farming, and medicine use cybernetics as control methods without much ongoing human input. Taking people out of the control seat has obvious disastrous effects, a dystopian fear from earliest times, but our capacity to control our selves and our world gets skewered each decade and we fly out of control and fall over ourselves as ego-driven masters enslaving the planet and others to our limited horizons. Democracy itself never seemed so needed and so threatened.

All this needs much discussion and debate and Ehrlich's work again prompts thinking people to consider how we might survive the global changes we have wrought.

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